Collaborative Product Leadership
Simon Thomas has been at RUSH since 2018, starting out in a Business Analyst role before shifting to focus on product strategy, management, and ownership. Currently a Product Lead, Simon was awarded the RUSH Person of the Year award in 2021, and in 2023 was on the team who won the inaugural Product Leadership award for their work on the Watercare app.
In this Q&A, Simon shares his insights on collaborative product leadership, including the importance of trust, communication, and transparency. He also discusses some challenges he's faced in his role and how he's overcome them.
What does collaborative product leadership mean to you?
Collaborative product leadership is about building trust and relationships with stakeholders, working together to solve problems, and ultimately achieving shared goals.
During an engagement, we prioritise understanding key stakeholder motivations first and then jointly shape goals and missions. Through interviews, we gather insights on project history, success criteria, pain points, deliverables and diverse perspectives. We then map these diverse viewpoints to inform our strategy for meeting key stakeholder expectations.
Ultimately, I feel I’ve done my job if everyone trusts that we’re all on the same page, rowing in the same direction.
What are the key ingredients for a successful product partnership?
Trust, communication and transparency.
A Product Lead needs to build trust with stakeholders so that they are open and honest about their needs, expectations, and are comfortable in solving problems together. We build trust through investing time together at the beginning of a project or partnership to get a true understanding of the client’s environment, goals, beliefs, and aspirations. The process of whakawhanaungatanga, taking the time to establish relationships, is something that I aspire to be able to effectively incorporate into the start of any partnership.
Then, being able to communicate effectively and frequently with everyone on the product team is extremely important to making sure that everyone is on the same page, and that they can feel ownership when collaboratively solving problems. Facilitating conversations and decisions with people of differing opinions, contexts, and strengths isn’t simple and requires thought and preparation. One of the things I really enjoy is taking disparate (and often complicated) information about a system, opportunity, or problem, and finding the best way to distil it, simplify it, and communicate it so that everyone can contribute to the conversation having truly understood what we’re trying to solve.
And, lastly, you need to be really clear with stakeholders about your progress, your challenges, and your plans. One element that’s really important for keeping stakeholders in the loop on is risks. Whether that is including new features and the risk to the delivery timeline, or unforeseen hiccups along the road. So we establish clear timelines and expectations and regularly update these as we move forward through the project. We tailor our approach to each client’s unique background and context, whether they are familiar with the world of product or come from highly regulated sectors.
What are some of the challenges you face in your role as a product leader? How do you overcome these?
Sometimes challenges do arise. One of the biggest challenges is managing expectations and scope, especially around timing. It's important to manage these expectations early on, and to be realistic about what can be delivered. If the conversation is always grounded in achieving outcomes, rather than predetermined outputs, then we set ourselves up well to be able to design to constraints, then pivot and compromise where necessary to ensure that we’re always delivering and learning.
Another challenge is dealing with change. Things change all the time in the product world, and it's important to be able to adapt to change quickly. You need to be able to pivot when necessary, while staying focused on the big picture. The only way you can adapt to change, though, is by knowing it’s happening and having an ear to the ground.
Ultimately, we always come back to our shared project mission, purpose and current focus as a way to remind us what it’s all about.
Is there a ‘secret sauce’ in product leadership you can share?
Being able to extract and apply customer feedback in a meaningful way. It’s not so secret, but it is deceivingly difficult.
Teresa Torres, a prominent product leader, champions beginning by talking to at least one customer, or end user, every week: “When you're trying to begin a true continuous-discovery product strategy, the best thing you can do is talk to your customers and start a journey of really understanding.” Eventually, once you’ve built the habit, you’ll have created real data; insights and knowledge that can paint an effective picture of pains and opportunities. Otherwise, you’re just guessing.
When working on projects, we often receive customer feedback through behavioural analytics or in-app feedback mechanisms. We make an effort to highlight these to our clients and work together to address this feedback and improve the customer experience and journey.
There’s also a fine balance between creating new features or addressing customer feedback on current features. Being able to address, prioritise, and incorporate feedback into existing work is an ongoing conversation with the client, which is supported by our business process.
What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to be a product leader?
As always, get as much experience as you can. Learn as much as you can about the product development lifecycle, and about the different roles involved in product development. The classic mix of subscribing, reading, and listening will at least get the juices flowing. For very quick consumption, I enjoy receiving John Cutler’s The Beautiful Mess in my inbox every few days.
Also, get involved in the community. Attend product conferences and meetups, and connect with other product leaders; hear about their challenges and what they did (or, more importantly, what they wish they did) to solve them. This will help you to learn from others, and to stay up-to-date on the latest strategies.
Finally, don't be afraid to take risks. The best product leaders are those who are willing to try new things and who are not afraid to fail.